Yeltsin’s Elections

Yeltsin’s Elections

This issue also featured contributions from Boris Kagarlitsky and Aleksandr Likhotal under the same headline.


“The United States does not easily support the suspension of parliaments. But these are extraordinary times.” Thus spoke Secretary of State Warren Christopher m October in Moscow, where he announced President Clinton’s proposed mid-January visit. The step was clearly designed to signal U.S. approval of the Russian elections scheduled for December 12, even though under the best of circumstances those elections will be terribly biased. Why did Christopher enact such a comedy? Because, he said, President Clinton is full of admiration for the “courage” of Boris Yeltsin in his struggle for “democracy” and “free-market reform.”

The shelling of the Russian Parliament is not the only thing our “democrats” have to swallow. They must now cover up or rationalize actions by the Yeltsin government that have, to put it mildly, a very remote relationship with democracy: seizure of total control over television, management of the other mass media, bans on political parties and newspapers. Freedom, it would seem, depends on the whim of the master. Thus Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossiya were graciously told that they could resume publication-if they changed their names and their editors!

The manner in which the new constitution is being introduced is even odder. The draft produced by a special conference sponsored by Yeltsin has now been rewritten by his servants to make it even more to his measure. It will become law if it is approved by half the electorate, but whatever happens, it will not be debated by any parliamentary assembly, neither the old Supreme Soviet nor the new Federal Assembly provided for in the draft. In announcing this procedure, Yeltsin revealed he no longer intends to hold a presidential election next June. Sergei Filatov, head of his administration, explained that the original promise to hold an election was no longer binding. Once you have sent in the tanks, who cares about a broken pledge? (Yeltsin’s later statement implying that the election was on after all was even less binding.)

If you are unconcerned about constitutional niceties, you may be shocked by the “ethnic cleansing” in Moscow. The emergency laws have enabled police in the capital to carry out mass raids against Caucasians, who are being beaten up and deported by the thousands. (In Russia “Caucasian” refers to a denizen of the Caucasus-Armenians, Georgians and other Chechens-whom Russians regard as darkies.) Yeltsin’s advocates defend the crackdown on the grounds that the “Caucasian mafia” dominated the food market and that a majority of Muscovites approve. Yet was it necessary to attack only one of the many mafias, selected on the basis of ethnicity and thus pandering to the lowest instincts of Russians? While the police raids do not go unreported in the Western press, they fail to provoke the wrath of our editorialists, once so full of moral indignation over breaches of democracy in Eastern Europe.

Do I hear voices from the right jeering at the cheek of someone of the left preaching against double standards in the coverage of Russia? There is, alas, an element of historical truth in the charge. For many years, a good section of the Western left, for all sorts of reasons (the end justified the means, the future was being forged in the Soviet Union, etc.). turned a blind eye toward, or even glorified, crimes committed in the name of socialism. Though the sin is an ancient one and the number of unconditional supporters of the Soviet Union dwindled in the last quarter-century, the left is still paying a price. For many people, and not only in Eastern Europe, socialism is still associated with Soviet repression, with the gulag.

What is exasperating is that indulgence for Stalin’s crimes ran directly counter to what the left stands for. If socialism is a movement from below, if it means a gradual conquest by the people, changing themselves as they change society, then democracy is the very air it breathes. Freedom is “always and exilusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”; “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” Those quotations are from a text written by Rosa Luxemburg seventy-five years ago, when to use the term “democratic socialism” was like saying buttery butter.

But didn’t genuine socialists mock bourgeois democracy and its formal rights? They did and, since the value of a freedom is most appreciated when one is deprived of it, they may well have altered the emphasis after Russia’s bitter experience–the emphasis, though not the criticism itself. They had described bourgeois constitutional rights as formal because they were insufficiently democratic. They did not propose to abolish them but to give them a full meaning by filling them with social content through economic justice and equality. Even today you cannot define democracy as one person, one vote and postulate the equality of voters in a society where, say, financier George Soros claims he pockets more than $1 billion in a week of clever speculation-an amount an American on the minimum wage would earn only after working for more than 100,000 years (no, the printer did not make a mistake), provided she was lucky enough to work a forty- hour week each year.

Differing analyses of our society, and the political consequences drawn from them, will always separate the socialist from the liberal. But that does not mean they cannot stand together, on the same platform or on parallel ones, in the struggle for basic freedoms. Indeed, in the campaign against repression in Russia, such an alliance is indispensable for the prosaic reason that the liberal voice carries more weight both in Washington and in Moscow. Let the true believers in the rights of humankind stand up and be counted. Let them condemn police pogroms in Moscow and violations of the elementary rights of the opposition. Let them send honest observers at once to monitor this electoral campaign–particularly to places far from Moscow–to prevent the vote from being a total farce. To claim that observers sent by the National Endowment for Democracy, as was proposed by the US. government, will keep the Yeltsin boys in check is like sending fellow travelers to insure the fairness of the poll in Stalin’s time. As to the propagandists, high and low, who are determined to present apparatchik Yeltsin turned Czar Boris as the apostle of freedom, if they carry on much longer, “free market democracy” will join “the white man’s burden” in the lexicon of capitalist cant.

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